Last Updated on March 14, 2014
What a wonderful book this was! I finished reading Phoenix Island by John Dixon in one afternoon over the weekend. It was so good, I couldn’t put it down. It is one of those stories that will haunt you long after you’ve read it, and it pops up in your head at the most unusual times.
I really wanted to read this book when I first heard that it is the base for a new CBS TV series called Intelligence, featuring none other than Josh Holloway, the best looking guy in Lost (sorry Matthew Fox). So yes, if anyone is wondering, there is indeed a Phoenix Island Intelligence link. Not so much by the place itself, but by the main character who features in both.
Intelligence is a new series that I won’t miss, and as it happens with movies or TV series that are based on books, I always try to read the book first (I think City of Bones is one of the very few exceptions from the rule). So when I saw the title at Netgalley, I promptly put in my request for a read and review copy, which I got accepted a few days ago.
The story grabbed me from the beginning. It is about a very intelligent and caring teen, Carl Freeman, who repeatedly gets in trouble for the very same offense: beating up bullies who can’t stand away from making other kids’ lives a misery. Carl Freeman is 16 and he’s already been in an out of a handful of different correction homes all over the country because of his quick temper and his need to teach bullies a lesson.
Right until he comes in front of a judge who sentences him to 2 years of toughing it out on an isolated place called Phoenix Island, a military-style boot camp for teenage orphans that is just a bit outside of the jurisdiction of the US, somewhere near Mexico. This is a place where he should learn to become a real man who would be able to to keep his short temper in check, says the judge.
When he arrives to the island, Carl is actually excited as he imagines himself swimming in the sea, and just taking it easy. Maybe like a mini-holiday that will pass soon before he can go back to society. He’ll just learn to play nice with others, do his push-ups (afterall he’s bee a multiple boxing champion who knows how to be strong in tough situation), and just wait out the two years until he can go back to society as an adult with his slate clean.
Initially it just seems that indeed the island is really just a bootcamp with semi-evil drill sergeants (particularly Parker), and with boys (and girls) just like him: society rejects with a last place to redeem themselves as valuable members of said society.
But as time goes by, the drill sergeant seems to really have it in for Carl, calling him Hollywood right from the start and hating his ‘individuality’ as he so puts it. Parker doesn’t like the fact that Carl is a good fighter and he is not afraid of speaking up – and even of being beaten up (afterall he can take a beating with eyes open, he’s done it plenty of times in the boxing ring).
As Carl soon discovers, nothing on the island is at it seems. Especially when he discovers the journal of a previous kid who described things so atrocious happening on the island that initially Carl dismisses it as the ramblings of someone who is bored.
Until he starts to see things happening that go way past any punishment that should be given to kids in a correctional institute.
The story is pure adrenaline and it is so well described that you have the feeling that you’re right there next to Carl, waiting for the drill sergeant to call your name to dish you out some punishment or another. Or even putting you in the sweat box, one place that literally everyone is horrified of getting sent to.
Carl is extremely well characterized, and you can’t but feel sympathy and admiration for him at the same time. He won’t give in, no matter what, until someone close to him gets threatened, when he snapped. And sadly the evil drill sergeant Parker knows just how far to push his buttons to really get to him.
Parker is the typical evil sadist that has no good bone in his body at all. Cruel, with pure joy when one of the kids get hurt (mostly at his hand or one of his followers).
Ross, Carl’s funny friend, who can’t talk without cracking at least one joke, even if it’s at his own expense, is another guy whom we can’t but like, right from the start. And Octavia, the pretty girl who becomes Carl’s close friend, is another character that is nicely fleshed out. Some parts of the novel are actually told from her perspective.
It is unavoidable that Carl will go through a process of self-discovery and coming of age where he will realize that he’s been going about it wrong all his life. When he’s in the deepest pickle, he finally understand his purpose in life, even if it comes to his own destruction, who just like the Phoenix, the island’s very symbol, comes back to life from the ashes.
The novel touches on a few serious issues, such as kids turned into mercenaries, death, bullying and friendship despite all odds. It is a book that while it makes you cringe quite often a the cruelties the kids have to endure on the island, it also makes you at least a temporary philosopher.
While I was initially under the impression that Phoenix Island is a standalone novel, the ending is wide open for a sequel, which I really hope will come, especially that there is a lot of space for Carl to further develop and do what he promised he would do at the end of this novel. What that is, you’ll have to read it in the book.
Check out the official trailer for the upcoming TV series based on Phoenix Island.
Check out Phoenix Island at Amazon and get in for the ride of your life!